Saturday, March 14, 2009

In search of pie

What with today being Pi day (March 14th, or 3.14), it seemed that a trip to Urbana for breakfast and pie would be a great way to commemorate the event. Always looking to kill two birds with one well-aimed throw, I thought it would be a good idea to have my Twitter friend ou_flyer join me for the ride. He works for the FBO at Bolton and would be the perfect person to be able to run over to my hangar to top up Papa's tanks should I ever need that done in preparation for a trip, but he would need a little familiarization with how to move the airplane in and out of the hangar first. It's not quite the same as moving a nosewheel plane around, after all. What better way to do that than to have him ride along for breakfast too? All that time working at Bolton and he had never had the opportunity to fly up to Urbana for their famous pie.

The Weather-out-the-Window™ forecast sometimes looks very promising but turns out to have some disqualifying feature like high winds or approaching crudiness once I take an "official" look at it, and sometimes the Weather-out-the-Window™ looks really dank and nasty but ultimately turns out to be flyable. Today was an example of the latter. I'm loath to traduce the flying qualities of any given day, but the fact is that at first glance, it looked horrible. Further research indicated that the general mediocrity of the weather turned out to simply be the combination of a high overcast and the abnormal gloominess we get for a few weeks after the clocks "spring forward," though.

The temperature, while technically meeting the empirical definition of "above freezing" at 35° F, was still chilly enough to necessitate the layered approach to dressing required to maintain personal warmth without causing over crowding in the cramped quarters of an RV cockpit. The winds were manageable at 4 or 5 knots. The visibility was said to be greater than 10 miles, but the Weather-out-the-Window™ observation made that look somewhat optimistic. Good enough, though. Good enough.

While our rendezvous was scheduled for 0900 at the hangar, I wanted to get out there a bit earlier. Nothing saps the faith and confidence of a first-time rider in a homebuilt airplane like a slow start on the engine, so I thought I'd get out there early enough for a good preflight and to make sure the engine was going to give me the alacritous start that I normally can expect. Why take chances, right? I've found that any worries over the quality and trustworthiness of an Experimental airplane often dissolve immediately with the coruscation of a quick, robust engine start, and I do like to give first time riders as much of a low-stress experience as possible.

Eric showed up right on time and we were soon lowering the canopy for yet another on-time departure. The winds had been forecasted to be generally out of the north which almost always means a long taxi down to runway 4, but they were still light enough to allow for the more convenient and expedient departure from 22. There weren't any other planes waiting for the runway (although there were at least two in the preparation stage), so we were in the air after a short end-of-runway check. With the ambient pressure being somewhat above 30 inches, the cool temperatures, and somewhere around half empty tanks, we climbed out at an impressive 1,500 fpm and an indicated speed of 120 mph.

Whenever I fly for the first time with a licensed pilot, I like to have a thousand feet of air under the wings before I relinquish control of the stick, mostly because many tend to over control for the first few seconds. There are few commonly available store-bought planes that enjoy the responsiveness of the RV, and the shift from yoke to stick also sometimes causes them to be a little frisky on the first try. Eric gave me just a little wobble and settled into the type of relaxed control movements that work best with the RV very quickly. By the time we had reached 3,500', he had the straight & level thing nailed, so I encouraged him to explore the control envelope a little further. A few steep turns later, he commented on the tremendous visibility provided by the bubble canopy. Usually it's at that point that I know that I've gotten another one hooked on RVs. The 168 knot ground speed (13 of which was the contribution of a generous tailwind) was simply icing on the cake.

I took over for a series of more aggressive aerial maneuvers, mostly just to get my own flying muscles limbered up. The air was smooth, and was therefore receptive to the type of flying that I prefer to do before breakfast. After I had worked out the tension of the work week, we pointed the nose back towards Urbana. We arrived to an empty pattern - that's always an unexpected treat on a weekend morning arrival at I74. The northerly winds were favoring a landing on runway 2, so we crossed over midfield for a left downwind. I had slowed us down early in the approach, so even at midfield downwind we were already slowed to flap extension speed. I always like to have other pilots follow the pressures on the stick as I deploy the flaps as it is routinely eye-opening for them to feel the relatively heavy nose down pitch the RV-6 develops as the barn doors are lowered into the wind.

The landing was nice and smooth, and if it hadn't been for the gear chatter that I get from the spring steel landing gear rods, I would have graded it as near perfect. My favorite parking spot right in front of the restaurant was available, and offered the perfect opportunity to show off the amazing ground handling benefits of a tailwheel airplane. As we pivoted into our parking spot and shut down the engine, I saw that a couple of fathers and their kids were watching us attentively. I knew for sure that I'd get the "what kind of airplane is that?" question, and I did. It always feels somewhat wrong to bask in the glow of that kind of attention, but I have to confess that it is one of my more guilty pleasures.

The restaurant was fairly crowded, but as usual there were open stools at the counter. I don't know why more people don't sit at the counter; I actually prefer it. The coffee comes early and often when you're sitting basically in the shadow of the coffee maker. Another benefit is that the famous pie is right there in front of you, thus reducing the risk that you will forget to procure a slice to take home as a peace offering to those left at home. I ordered the mega-omelet which contains just about every edible item in the kitchen to go with my coffee.

The waitress asked if it we would prefer one check or two, and Eric and I both said, "One, please." I know when both my partner and I answer that question simultaneously and with the same response that we are headed directly into the traditional battle over who gets to pay. I've learned sneaky techniques over the years to win that battle with nefarious and diabolical schemes, but I've also learned that it's insulting to the passenger to do so. My strategy in these cases is now to just acquiesce to their desire to have some kind of pecuniary participation in the day, and I just pick up the tip. Oh, and I insist on buying my own pie.

We enjoyed a nice leisurely conversation while we ate, which is itself another benefit of sitting at the counter: you don't feel pressured to finish up your food and vacate your spot by the folks out in the lobby waiting for a table or booth. It was today that I noticed for the first time that the diner has expanded their menu with an entirely new barnyard animal: Buffalo. I've had buffalo before and it is true that it tastes different than cow. It's not something I can describe, nor is it something that I can say I like better or not than the traditional beef. I think I'll have to look for an opportunity to head back to Urbana for a dinner some time to give it a try. Co-pilot Rick might be up for that.

As we were headed out to the end or runway 2 for our departure back to Bolton, we counted no fewer than five deer on the inside of the "wildlife control" fence, thus confusing me as to what exactly it is that the fence is supposed to accomplish. All five were far enough away from the runway and ostensibly concerned enough with their own well-being to give the runway a wide berth, though, so they weren't really a factor. As we departed from the airport, I saw a huge-ish cloud of smoke off to the east. Eric was flying at that point, so I had him fly us over for a closer look. As he was flying the plane quite ably enough for me to be comfortable with a momentary distraction, I grabbed the camera and took some pictures.

It appears to be a deliberate field burn, but I didn't think that was commonly done anymore. I'm not sure what it was supposed accomplish, but since there were no fire engines on scene to battle the blaze I can only assume that the conflagration was intentional.

We continued back to Bolton where again we were lucky enough to find an empty pattern. The tower had shifted operations to runway 4 in our absence, so I had Eric point as at the midpoint of the airport to set us up for an easy entry into the left downwind. Landing on runway 4 is nice because I welcome the opportunity to overfly my house, but it does entail deliberately landing long to avoid a mile-long taxi back to parking. I aim for a touchdown spot far enough down the runway to allow me to reach taxi speed at the Alpha 4 turnoff. I nailed it today with both a smooth landing and a perfect roll out, but the tower threw me a curve and instructed me to exit at the next taxiway down, Alpha 3. Still, it counts as a good landing.

Once we were parked back at the hangar I finally got around to demonstrating the proper way to push/pull the plane into and out of the hangar. We parted ways and I headed home to share with the Twitter world that we had had returned, and that "a good time was survived by all." It was only as I was making that posting that it struck me:

Eric had forgotten to buy himself a slice of pie.

He did get a nice souvenir picture, though:


  1. I've flown to Urbana for breakfast before, too! So good!!!! I love that place :)

  2. Flying to breakfast sounds ideal. I agree, eating at the counter makes the food taste that much better.